How to survive an uncertain future at work

Innovation, light bulb, ideas


How can we deal with increasing turbulence and uncertainty at work? With technology transforming everything around us and warnings about a large swathe of jobs being at risk of automation, there is much speculation about what the future of work holds for humans.

A new book by innovation studies professor Mark Dodgson and innovation and technology management professor David M Gann attempts to find a positive path forwards through the stories of some of the most creative entrepreneurs. The Playful Entrepreneur argues that what they have in common is an approach to work that links back to our childhood years: an interest in the kind of experimentation, exploration and curiosity to challenge established norms which is associated with play.

They include Steve Shirley, a Holocaust survivor who came to the UK and, aged 29,  set up a software company, changing her name from Stephanie to Steve to get ahead. Her model was built on freelancing women programmers who worked from home. The aim was to create a creative commune of people who were not bound by rules, but were passionate about what they did. The company allowed job sharing, offered profit sharing and was built on mutual trust. The book tells of Shirley’s up and down entrepreneurial journey and of how she, as the mother of an autistic child, went on to create a foundation which gave millions to set up a specialist school for children with autism.

Dodgson and Gann state: “Steve Shirley shows the journey of the entrepreneur may not be smooth, with as many severe downs as ups. Yet, her story also reveals that when that journey is motivated by a passion – in her case to build and benefit from the ‘shared joy’ of trusting relationships, working together with others and giving back – it can be richly satisfying.”

From creativity to resilience

Their book sets out the attributes of playful entrepreneurs, including creative problem-solving, fortitude or resilience and ambition – and points out that playfulness includes the freedom to have discretion over what work they do and how it is done, an openness to experimentation and learning and an ability to have fun through feeling work is rewarding and enjoyable.

Under creativity and craft it emphasises playful entrepreneurs’ skill in combining different abilities and perspectives and engaging with problems that are pleasurable to solve and “meaningful in their results”.

They also show an ability to adapt to uncertainty and to grasp any opportunities that present themselves as well as creating spaces for people to do things differently.

The authors says that playful entrepreneurs hold lessons for other businesspeople as well as employees who want more rewarding work in their current and future workplaces.

The book does not ignore the dangers of the technology age – the danger, for instance, of increasing inequality with growing divisions between creative, ‘human’ jobs and precarious, low skilled jobs that are at risk of automation. But, despite this, it is optimistic, saying the most secure jobs of the future will be those that machines cannot do. Those are jobs based on empathy, imagination, ethical decision-making and a desire for socialisation and fun – the things that make us distinctively human.

The book also looks back at previous periods of industrial transformation and argues that there is no need for humans to give in to fatalism about technology. “There are choices to be made by organisations, entrepreneurs and workers on how technology is developed and used,” it states. “Technology is not something that happens to us, but something which we can influence and shape.”

*The Playful Entrepreneur: How To Adapt And Thrive In Uncertain Times by Mark Dodgson and David M Gann is published by Yale University Press on 2nd October, price 20 pounds hardback. 

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